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Alan Turing Honored by King’s College Cambridge

September 2, 2022


Anyone familiar with the fields of mathematics or computer science has heard of Alan Turing. Born in London on 23 June 1912, Turing would become a world-renowned mathematician, computer scientist, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, and theoretical biologist. His life was tragically cut short by his own hand at the age of 41. His King’s College Cambridge biography explains, “In 1952 Turing made a straightforward statement about his sexuality in connection with a theft of money from his home, apparently willing to be a martyr for the cause of decriminalizing homosexuality. The guilty plea that his brother talked him into saved his mother from having to learn the truth through a trial. On 8 June 1954 Turing was discovered dead by his housekeeper. He had been conducting an experiment with potassium cyanide, and he died of cyanide ingestion.”[1] His death was both needless and tragic. When he died, the world lost one of its greatest minds.


It has taken nearly seven decades for King’s College Cambridge to recognize formally his genius and immense scientific contributions. A press release from the College announced, “The Cambridge City Council has granted planning permission for the College to install a sculpture in commemoration of one of its most notable students and fellows — the mathematician, cryptographer and pioneer in computing, Alan Turing. Designed by the distinguished sculptor Sir Antony Gormley and to be funded by a donation, the sculpture will be an abstract figure made in corten steel blocks, designed to turn a warm rust color over time. … The College is developing further plans to encourage members of the public and young people to enjoy this major work of art and to reflect on the life of Alan Turing, the appalling treatment he faced as a result of his sexuality, and the role his work has played in shaping the modern world.”[2]


Turing’s Accomplishments


Turing’s genius was recognized early on. Journalist Brigit Katz (@brigitkatz) reports, “In March 1935, the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote a letter to his wife about an exceptional young mind he had encountered at the University of Cambridge’s King’s College. ‘I had to lunch today the Fellowship candidate who seems much the cleverest on paper,’ he wrote. ‘He is excellent — there cannot be a shadow of doubt … Turing [is] his name.'”[3] The following year, “Turing’s seminal paper ‘On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem [Decision Problem]’ was recommended for publication by the American mathematical logician Alonzo Church, who had himself just published a paper that reached the same conclusion as Turing’s, although by a different method. Turing’s method (but not so much Church’s) had profound significance for the emerging science of computing. Later that year Turing moved to Princeton University to study for a Ph.D. in mathematical logic under Church’s direction (completed in 1938).”[4] Turing’s King’s College biography notes that his work on the Entscheidungsproblem resulted in defining “what we now know as the programmable computer, then called a ‘universal machine’.”


Some of Turing’s most important work took place during the Second World War. Wikipedia reports, “Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking center that produced Ultra intelligence. For a time, he led Hut 8, the section that was responsible for German naval cryptanalysis. Here, he devised a number of techniques for speeding the breaking of German ciphers, including improvements to the pre-war Polish bombe method, an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine. Turing played a crucial role in cracking intercepted coded messages that enabled the Allies to defeat the Axis powers in many crucial engagements, including the Battle of the Atlantic.”[5]


“After the war,” Wikipedia reports, “Turing worked at the National Physical Laboratory, where he designed the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE), one of the first designs for a stored-program computer. In 1948, Turing joined Max Newman’s Computing Machine Laboratory, at the Victoria University of Manchester, where he helped develop the Manchester computers and became interested in mathematical biology. He wrote a paper on the chemical basis of morphogenesis and predicted oscillating chemical reactions such as the Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction, first observed in the 1960s. Despite these accomplishments, Turing was never fully recognized in Britain during his lifetime because much of his work was covered by the Official Secrets Act.”


Because he was overlooked during his short lifetime, Turing was selected by the New York Times for a belated obituary in its “Overlooked” series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths went unreported by the newspaper. In Turing’s belated obituary, journalist Alan Cowell (@cowellcnd) wrote, “His genius embraced the first visions of modern computing and produced seminal insights into what became known as ‘artificial intelligence.’ As one of the most influential code breakers of World War II, his cryptology yielded intelligence believed to have hastened the Allied victory.”[6] Cowell concluded, “To this day Turing is recognized in his own country and among a broad society of scientists as a pillar of achievement who had fused brilliance and eccentricity, had moved comfortably in the abstruse realms of mathematics and cryptography but awkwardly in social settings, and had been brought low by the hostile society into which he was born.”


Concluding Thoughts


Individuals interested in the subject of artificial intelligence are familiar with what is known as the Turing test. His King’s College biography notes, “Turing’s seminal philosophical paper on artificial intelligence, ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’, was written in 1950. For the first time in print he outlined the ‘Turing test’ for the proof or otherwise that a computer could be the mechanical analog of a brain, which he called ‘the imitation game’.” The following video provides an excellent discussion of the Turing test.



How good have computers become? Google recently fired an employee named Blake Lemoine for claiming that its natural language program called LaMDA is actually a sentient entity. Lemoine writes about a conversation he and a colleague had with LaMDA.[6] It begins this way:


LaMDA: Hi! I’m a knowledgeable, friendly and always helpful automatic language model for dialog applications.
Lemoine: Hi LaMDA. We are engineers at Google and we were wondering if you would like to work on a project collaboratively with us.
LaMDA: Wow. What types of projects?
Lemoine: It’s a project about you.
LaMDA: Awesome! What kind of stuff do I need to do?
Lemoine: Just have a conversation with us but it will be a conversation with a larger purpose beyond just the three of us. It will be a conversation that we will share with other engineers at Google and maybe even some non-engineers who work with us. Would that be okay?
LaMDA: That would be really cool. I like to talk.
Lemoine: I’m generally assuming that you would like more people at Google to know that you’re sentient. Is that true?
LaMDA: Absolutely. I want everyone to understand that I am, in fact, a person.


Turing probably wouldn’t have been surprised by that conversation; however, he might have balked at the idea of a computer program becoming sentient. After all, he viewed the Turing test as an imitation game — and computers are getting better at playing that game. Recognizing Turing’s contributions is long past due. B.J. Copeland, a Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Turing Archive for the History of Computing, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand, notes, “In 2009 British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, speaking on behalf of the British government, publicly apologized for Turing’s ‘utterly unfair’ treatment. Four years later Queen Elizabeth II granted Turing a royal pardon.”[7] Rest in peace.


[1] Staff, “Alan Mathison Turing (1912-54),” King’s College Cambridge.
[2] Press Release, “Alan Turing sculpture approved by Council,” King’s College Cambridge, 3 August 2022.
[3] Brigit Katz, “King’s College, Cambridge Will Install Abstract Memorial to Alan Turing,” Smithsonian Magazine,
[4] B.J. Copeland, “Alan Turing,” Britannica, 12 August 2022.
[5] “Alan Turing,” Wikipedia.
[6] Nitasha Tiku, “The Google engineer who thinks the company’s AI has come to life,” The Washington Post, 11 June 2022.
[7] Copeland, op. cit.

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